Jun. 8, 2010

Lost Childhood

by David Ignatow

How was it possible, I a father
yet a child of my father? I
grew panicky and thought
of running away but knew
I would be scorned for it
by my father. I stood
and listened to myself
being called Dad.

How ridiculous it sounded,
but in front of me, asking
for attention—how could I,
a child, ignore this child's plea?
I lifted him into my arms
and hugged him as I would have
wanted my father to hug me,
and it was as though satisfying
my own lost childhood.

"Lost Childhood" by David Ignatow, from Against the Evidence: Selected and New Poems 1934 1994. © Wesleyan University Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1867 that Mark Twain (books by this author) set off on a tour of Europe and the Middle East, a trip that gave him the material for his first major book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). He traveled with a large group of American tourists, on a steam-driven side-wheeler called the Quaker City. It was the first transatlantic cruise on a steamship.

Twain was just starting out as a writer at the time. He was living in New York, working as the travel correspondent for the San Francisco newspaper the Alta California. He convinced the editors to pay for his cruise, and in exchange he would write 50 letters from the cruise ship to be published in the paper. He had just started using the name Mark Twain a few years before, and he was still trying to build his reputation. His first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (1867), hadn't sold very well, and he thought a travel book would be a good way to make a name for himself.

When Twain got back from the cruise, his publisher gave him six months to write a 600-page book. He wrote most of it in Washington, D.C., in a tiny room full of dirty clothes, cigar ashes, and manuscript pages. He used a lot of the material from the letters he wrote during the trip, buthe made several changes to make it more appealing to an eastern audience. He took out some of the cruder jokes and the racier passages, such as a description of nude bathers at Odessa. He thought easterners were more likely to be offended then westerners, and he wanted to reach as large an audience as possible. He wrote about 200,000 words in two months, or about 3,500 words per day, and finished just before his publisher's deadline.

In Florence, he wrote: "It is popular to admire the Arno. It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it. They all call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines. They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it. I do not see why they are too good to wade."

The book was published by the American Publishing Company in 1869. The Innocents Abroad sold more than 125,000 copies in 10 years, and it established Twain's reputation.

It's the birthday of the world's first professor of agricultural physics, Franklin Hiram King, (books by this author) born on a farm near Whitewater, Wisconsin (1848).

King taught high school science after college, and during the summers he would do his own research projects. He did some work standardizing plant analysis, he studied glaciers, he studied moraines in North Dakota, and he and his wife figured out a mechanical way to make relief maps of national parks, which they sold to places like Harvard.

In 1888, King was hired by the University of Wisconsin in Madison to start a department of agricultural physics. King researched soil physics, looking at soil structure, how soil holds water and how much water plants need, drainage, and aeration; as well as research into windmills, plows, and other farm structures and tools.

His most famous legacy from his years at Madison was the invention of the cylindrical silo. He was always looking for ways to reduce waste in farming, and he was struck by how much silage rotted in the corners of traditional rectangular silos. So he invented a cylindrical silo, which quickly became the standard for farmers across the country, transforming the rural landscape. Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have based his design for the Guggenheim Museum on King's idea.

Toward the end of his tenure at Madison, King's focus changed to soil fertility. King's research showed that not only did nutrient-rich soil significantly increase crop yield, but that crops depleted soil and that the same amount of nutrients that were taken out had to be put back in. This basic idea is now a universally accepted practice by any type of farmer.

He spent nine months traveling through Japan, Korea, and China, studying soil practices of farmers in those regions. He recorded how they saved every drop of fertility they could to put back in their fields — human waste, ashes from the cooking fire, muck from ditches, any scrap of food for humans or livestock. King was amazed at the lack of waste.

He returned to the United States in the fall of 1909 and spent the next two years writing up his findings in a book, Farmers of Forty Centuries. At the time it was published, America was heading rapidly toward full-scale industrial farming, and Farmers of Forty Centuries was regarded as an interesting ethnography more than anything else. But 100 years later, his book is considered an important touchstone of the sustainable farming movement.

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